Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Impact of First-Year Seminars on Student Outcomes

The first year of college is a contemporary milestone that brings with it opportunities and challenges as unique and diverse as the students themselves. Perhaps the challenges outweigh the opportunities, as only 73.9 percent of students in four-year public institutions persist to their second year of college, and only 55.9 percent of students in two-year colleges persist into their second year nationwide (American College Testing, 2010). Although these figures may be inflated by the frequency with which students transfer to other schools rather than dropout altogether, the numbers paint a tumultuous picture of the first-year experience. In response to these and similar findings, institutions have created a vast array of programs designed to ease the adjustment process for new students. Orientation sessions, learning communities, student mentors, peer counseling, bridge programs, and first-year seminars represent the variety of initiatives designed to set students up for success (Barefoot, 2000; Keup & Barefoot, 2005). Of these initiatives, first-year seminars are the most common, and can be found at over 87 percent of all colleges and universities (National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2009).

The term first-year seminar describes a variety of initiatives that vary by institution. The 2009 National Survey of First-Year Seminars found that over 40 percent of U.S. institutions offer extended orientation seminars as their primary first-year seminar type (National Resource Center, 2009). Other common initiatives included seminars with uniform academic content (16.1%), academic seminars on various topics (15.4%), hybrid courses (15.3%), and around 5 percent of institutions focused primarily on basic study skills (National Resource Center, 2009). Furthermore, these courses tended to be one semester in length (67.8%), taught by tenure-track faculty (61.4%), and counted for general education requirements (53.1%) (National Resource Center, 2009).

While first-year seminars come in many shapes and sizes, empirical studies on the subsequent outcomes indicate that the specific format is rather unimportant. For example, Friedman and Marsh investigated possible differences in outcomes between basic college success seminars, and thematic seminars (2009). They found no significant differences in retention rates or academic performance between students in thematic seminars and those in the seminars that generally focus on student transition and study skills (Friedman & Marsh, 2009). These findings seem to indicate that the type of first-year seminar is less important than the mere existence of the courses at all.

Outcomes for Participants / Nonparticipants

When comparing the outcomes for students enrolled in first-year seminar courses to those not enrolled in such courses, the benefits are undeniable. Pascarella and Terenzini summarized the literature and found “uniformly consistent evidence of positive and statistically significant advantages to students who take the courses” (2005, p. 400-401). Broadly, these advantages include increased persistence to the second-year of college (Porter & Swing, 2006; Starke & Sirianni, 2001), increased graduation rates (Schnell, Louis & Doetkott, 2003; Starke & Sirianni, 2001), and academic success (Keup & Barefoot, 2005; Reed, 2011; Starke & Sirianni, 2001).

Starke and Sirianni (2001) measured retention, academic achievement, bonding (to the college), and satisfaction between students in a first-year seminar course and students who did not take the course. Their results showed significant differences in third semester retention between students who took the seminar and those who did not. Seventy-nine percent of the students who took the course went on to their third semester at the same college, while only 51 percent of students not enrolled in the course returned following their second semester (Starke & Sirianni, 2001). Significant differences were also reported for graduation rates, with 50 percent of students enrolled in the first-year seminar graduating within six years compared to 20 percent of students not enrolled. Finally, cumulative GPA within four semesters of taking the course was significantly higher (M = 2.32 / M = 1.59) for students enrolled in the seminar compared to those who were not (Starke & Sirianni, 2001). Based on recent contributions to this expansive body of research, Pascarella and Terenzini’s summary (2005) holds true today:
Studies consistently find that [first-year seminar] participation promotes persistence into the second year and over longer periods of time. More recent studies employ various multivariate statistical procedures to control for academic ability and achievement and other precollege characteristics. Whatever the procedure, the research points to the same conclusion, indicating positive and statistically significant net effects of [first-year seminar] participation (versus nonparticipation) on persistence into the second year or attainment of a bachelor’s degree. (p. 402)
While these positive effects are evident in terms of persistence, graduation, and academic success, it remains unclear if the positive outcomes associated with first-year seminars are direct or indirect results of participation in the courses.

Course participation is related to a host of psychosocial and academic benefits that could be the underlying cause of the noticeable increase in persistence, graduation rates, and academic success. It has been shown that “course participants are more likely to report interacting with faculty and engaging in good classroom practices such as speaking up in classes, academic collaboration with other students, and course attendance” (Keup & Barefoot, 2005, p. 36). In addition to academic skills, students who took a first-year seminar course were more likely to engage in the campus community, and develop close friendships with other students. In another study, students who took a first-year seminar course showed improvements in attention, self-efficacy, and academic and general resourcefulness (Reed, Kennett, Lewis & Lund-Lucas, 2011). These outcomes have a positive influence on students’ perceived success and satisfaction with the institution, and could answer how first-year seminars are able to improve graduation rates, grades, and retention statistics (Keup & Barefoot, 2005). Early socialization, improved academic skills, regularly attending class, and interacting with faculty have already been established as ways to promote retention and academic success (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Therefore, it remains unclear whether the benefits of first-year seminars are direct or indirect.

Conditional Effects and Individual Traits

Earlier reviews reported that “first-year seminars appear to benefit all categories of students,” including differences in gender, minority status, age, major, on/off campus, and at-risk status (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 401). Recent studies have investigated possible conditional effects for students with learning disabilities (Reed et al., 2011) and varying high school achievement (Schnell et al., 2003). Some conditional effects were found, but it is important to note that differences only existed in the magnitude and not the direction of the relationship.

In a study of relative benefits for students with and without learning disabilities, Reed and colleagues used pre/post tests to survey students taking a first-year seminar course. All students reported significant improvements in inattentiveness, self-efficacy, academic resourcefulness, and general resourcefulness (Reed et al., 2011). Furthermore, “students with learning disabilities had higher gains in their academic self-efficacy than students without disabilities” (Reed et al., 2011). These findings show that trait differences can affect first-year seminar outcomes to a small extent.

Another study, focusing on graduation rates between students taking a first-year seminar course and a matched comparison group, found that around 40 percent of the seminar group graduated in 5 years or less, while the matched group only graduated 32 percent within 5 years (Schnell et al., 2003). The role of first-year seminars leading to improved graduation rates has already been established, however, the authors discovered an interesting relationship between high school achievement and the magnitude of the benefit received by the seminar. High school deciles were constructed to standardize student performance by controlling for the size of high schools students attended. Students in the lower to middle deciles benefited the most from taking the seminar, whereas students in the uppermost high school decile showed minimal benefit compared to students not enrolled in the seminar (Schnell et al., 2003).

Conceptual Model

These results demonstrate that, although first-year seminars have general positive effects that lead to persistence, graduation, and academic success for a variety of students, individual differences in traits and pre-college experiences still have an influence on student outcomes. This idea is conceptualized in a variety of models, but most simply in Astin’s (1991) Input-Environment-Output (I-E-O) framework (As cited in Keup & Barefoot, 2005). Astin’s framework is useful for considering biases resulting from the fact that characteristics and preferences students possess prior to attending college (inputs) can, and do, simultaneously influence the selection of environment and subsequent experiences in that setting (environment), and outcomes that result from both the environment and the initial inputs (Keup & Barefoot, 2005, p. 17-18). The influence pre-college experiences and individual traits have on the selection of the environment (particularly the selection of a first-year seminar course) draws attention to selection bias as yet another confounding factor in research regarding first-year seminars.

Selection Bias

Previously, researchers have attempted to control for selection bias through matched comparison groups (Porter & Swing, 2006; Schnell et al., 2003), comparison of required and elective seminar courses (Keup & Barefoot, 2005), and true experimental design. Matched comparison groups provide controls for potentially confounding pre-college variables in attempt to eliminate or reduce group differences. Such studies have controlled for gender, race, socioeconomic status, and academic ability, but rarely account for motivation for taking a seminar course and beliefs about college. When these variables are controlled, “advantages tend to shrink, although the benefits of [first-year seminar] participation remain” (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). These results suggest that conditional effects and individual traits account for some, but not all, of the positive outcomes associated with first-year seminars.

Looking at differences between required first-year seminar courses and elective courses, researchers found that “required first-year seminars do have an impact on key student outcomes” (Keup & Barefoot, 2005, p. 37). However, in the same study, multivariate analyses showed no statistically significant impact on adjustment to college for student electing to take the seminars. Paradoxically, this suggests that first-year seminars are more beneficial to students who do not choose to take them, and that students who are motivated to enroll in these seminars already possess the traits necessary to succeed.

Unfortunately, true experimental studies of first-year seminar courses are rare. A previous review of literature was only able to identify one such study by Strumpf and Hunt (As cited in Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). This study was able to control for motivation to participate in a first-year seminar by randomly assigning students to two groups (course and no course) after they had already expressed interest in enrolling. While this procedure does not create intentionally similar groups, in theory it should provide a true experimental control for conditional effects, individual traits, and motivation. The researchers, in this case, reported significantly increased rates of persistence for students in the seminar group (As cited in Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Since this previous review, another experimental study was conducted by Yale (2000) at Bloomsburg University (As cited in Cuseo, in press) “in which students were assigned randomly to be course participants or non-participants” (p. 3). Results of this study revealed higher levels of academic and social integration for students in the seminar group. While only two experimental studies do little to establish a causal linkage between first-year seminar courses and outcomes, they do add to the weight of research that suggests participation in first-year seminars has either indirect or direct effects on factors leading to persistence, graduation, and academic success in college.

Implications for Student Affairs Professionals

Six years after the second volume of How College Affects Students (2005) was published, we are no closer to establishing causal links between first-year seminar courses and a multitude of beneficial outcomes. It is undeniable that first-year seminar courses have statistically significant and positive impacts on adjustment to college, the likelihood of persistence, eventual graduation, and academic success. However, it remains to be seen whether these positive impacts are the result of underlying dimensions producing an indirect effect on related outcomes, or direct links to substantial outcomes. While the academic question is tantalizing, from the viewpoint of a practitioner it may be irrelevant. Whether the positive impact is a direct or indirect result is inconsequential in light of the fact that first-year seminars at least contribute to sizeable improvements in student success.

Administrators can rest assured that first-year seminars have been thoroughly scrutinized, and that positive benefits are substantive. Cuseo provides the empirical case for first-year seminars in his own review of research-based outcomes. He concludes that “positive outcomes associated with the first-year seminar undoubtedly have been more carefully and consistently documented than have the outcomes of any other single course in the history of higher education.” (Cuseo, in press, p. 2).

Even more reassuring is the fact that vastly different types of first-year seminars at worst will minimally improve student retention, graduation, and academic success. In other words, these programs have a very low risk of negative consequences, but provide an enormous opportunity for promoting student success. Future research should focus on comparing the differences between seminar performance levels to identify best practices that have not been established empirically. Finally, rather than focusing on outcomes at the student or cohort level, research targeting campus-wide impacts will help identify the possibly subtle impact resulting from increased student involvement and social integration throughout the campus community.

[Photo courtesy of Tobias Leeger. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]


American College Testing. (2010). National Collegiate Retention and Persistence to Degree Rates. Retrieved from http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/retain_2010.pdf

Cuseo, J. (monograph in press). The empirical case for the first-year seminar: Promoting positive student outcomes and campus-wide benefits. The First-Year Seminar Research-Based Recommendations for Course Design, Delivery, & Assessment. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt. Retrieved from https://collab.uwex.uwc.edu/uwc/shb/committees/esfy/Shared%20Documents/ESFY%20-%20Literature/The%20Empirical%20Case%20for%20the%20First-Year%20Seminar.pdf

Friedman, D. B., & Marsh, E. G. (2009). What type of first-year seminar is most effective? A comparison of thematic seminars and college transition/success seminars. Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 21(1), 29-42.

Keup, J. R., & Barefoot, B. O. (2005). Learning how to be a successful student: Exploring the impact of first-year seminars on student outcomes. Journal of the First-Year Experience, 17(1), 11-47.

National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. (2009). 2009 National Survey of First‐Year Seminars. Retrieved from http://sc.edu/fye/research/survey_instruments/index.html

Pascarella, E. T, & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Porter, S. R., & Swing, R. L. (2006). Understanding how first-year seminars affect persistence. Research in Higher Education, 47(1), 89-109.

Reed, M. J., Kennett, D. J., Lewis, T., & Lund-Lucas, E. (2011). The relative benefits found for students with and without learning disabilities taking a first-year university preparation course. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(2), 133-142.

Schnell, C. A., Louis, K. S., & Doetkott, C. (2003). The first-year seminar as a means of improving college graduation rates. Journal of the First-Year Experience, 15(1), 53-76.

Starke, M. C., & Sirianni, F. (2001). Retention, bonding, and academic achievement: Success of a first-year seminar. Journal of the First-Year Experience, 13(2), 7-35.